Sunday, October 13, 2019

One Tree Two Ways

10/9/19 Maple Leaf neighborhood

My personal leaf-peeping tour continues, and once again, I didn’t have to go far to find this maple in the ‘hood. On a brisk but brilliant day, I first made a small fountain pen sketch in my pocket-size Stillman & Birn Epsilon sketchbook (the one I’ve been carrying the past few weeks for times when I want to use graphite or ink) for InkTober. Of course, immediately after that, I sketched it again in full color in my larger S&B Beta.

Books and instructors often recommend making thumbnail value studies before tackling a larger work in full color, but I almost never do. I should, though, because the smaller ink sketch served that very purpose and made the values easier to see when I went in with color.

How’s this for a coincidence: Almost exactly two years ago, I sketched this same tree for InkTober, probably from the same parking spot.

Saturday, October 12, 2019

Ground Level at Columbia Center

10/11/19 Smith Tower
Around the time when the USk Friday group was still fairly small, we met a couple of times at Columbia Center, Seattle’s tallest skyscraper, mainly to sketch from the Sky View Observatory on the 73rd floor. Back then, the admission was nominal, and apparently it was the city’s best-kept secret because we had the place to ourselves. Now it’s a “destination,” the price has gone up to $22, and even on this off-season day, tourists were queued up for tickets by noon.

USk Seattle members opted not to pay the sky-high price, though several chose the Starbucks on the 40th floor. It’s not the 360-degree view of the observatory, but for the price of a latte, you can sketch through numerous huge windows facing west and north.

Though the Starbucks view was tempting, I wanted to face south to sketch the Smith Tower, my favorite Seattle building. Near ground level, Columbia Center has three atrium floors that have been improved significantly since the last time we sketchers met there in 2014 – many more well-lighted public areas with lots of tables and other seating. I found one that allowed a great view of Smith Tower without going out in the chilly but sunny day.

The rest of the morning, I wandered around the three atrium levels hunting victims. I chose two hapless guys who only wanted to eat their lunch in peace without getting sketched. The one I sketched from above was irresistible: He was only a few feet below me but separated by a glass partition. Columbia Center is all about views that are difficult to get anywhere else in the city.

10/11/19 Columbia Center Atrium
Technical notes: Because I had it in mind to sketch the Smith Tower for InkTober, I brought my Stillman & Birn Zeta sketchbook instead of Beta. Although I’ve decided that Zeta is not my favorite with wet media, I still love it with any form of ink – fountain pens, markers, brush pens. I used all three in these sketches, and they all glide beautifully on the smooth surface.

Speaking of Stillman & Birn, here’s a newsflash that was just released yesterday: The European stationery company Clairfontaine has acquired Stillman & Birn. My initial impulse was to view this as bad news; we’ve all seen quality decline when small, independent companies are bought out by larger ones. On the other hand, Clairfontaine (which also own Rhodia, known for its fountain-pen-friendly notebooks and journals, including my favorite travel journal) has a wide international reach. I’ve heard it’s difficult and expensive to buy S&B sketchbooks outside North America. Maybe this acquisition will mean that S&B sketchbooks will be easier to buy in other countries. Let’s all hope that the quality remains the same. (Fighting the urge to hoard a lifetime supply now, just in case.)

10/11/19 Columbia Center Atrium
Unprecedented views at Columbia Center.

Friday, October 11, 2019

A Seattle Welcome at the Roastery

10/10/19 Main roaster at Starbucks Roastery and Reserve

When Florida sketcher Lee Kline told us he was in town this week and wanted to sketch with USk Seattle, we decided to give him an appropriate Seattle welcome – at the Starbucks Roastery and Reserve, of course. It makes for a convenient indoor/outdoor venue: Its Capitol Hill neighborhood is sketch-worthy if the weather is amenable, and if it isn’t, there’s always the fascinating copper tanks and pneumatic tubing that “usher the beans through the building.”

Although the sunshine was inviting, the temperature was only in the low 40s, so I opted to stay indoors. Sharing a table with Lee, David and Natali on the Roastery’s lower level, I had a good view of the main roaster. Nearly five years ago on my second visit there, I attempted this same roaster from a different angle and got lost in all that crazy tubing. This time I bit off a simpler composition that I thought would be easier to chew, but it’s still a complicated mess. Oh, well – the company was fun, and the overpriced coffee and pastry were delicious.

(You’re going to see this sketch again in a few days. . . I have more to say about it.)

Thanks for joining us, Lee (in the center)!

Thursday, October 10, 2019

Gesture is Life and Movement

10/7/19 Timothy (20-min. pose)

I’m reading The Artist’s Complete Guide to Figure Drawing: A Contemporary Perspective on the Classical Tradition, by Anthony Ryder. An instructor at Gage Academy, Ryder works with many media and subject matter, but his figure drawings in graphite have captured my attention like no other. I am working through the book slowly, trying to grasp his intriguing methods and concepts.

So often I have looked back at my sketchbook pages and seen that I have drawn mannequins. Even if they are relatively well-formed and well-proportioned, many appear lifeless. More often than not lately, I see some life in the figures, but capturing that essential life (however it is expressed with ink or pencil) is a constant challenge. The following passage resonated through my mind while I sketched Timothy at Monday’s life-drawing session:

Gesture is life and movement. It is the energy inherent in the form of the model, a living energy coursing through his or her whole body. This isn’t called life drawing for nothing. We must literally and figuratively draw upon our own living energy, and that of the model, when we draw the figure. The people in our drawings should appear as if they are breathing, as if their hearts are beating. . . . Even if a model is posing very quietly, and is keeping very still, she’s still sitting in a particular way – this is the manifestation of her body language and tells us a lot about what she’s like as a person. And beyond that, the model isn’t just sitting. She’s actively living. Life is expressing itself in every part of her body, visible in each part’s unique shape. All living forms have this quality. . . . The form of the body is like visual music. It ‘moves’ even when it’s perfectly still.
– Anthony Ryder
10/719 10-min. pose
10/7/19 10-min. pose

10/7/19 10-min. pose

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Japanese Maple

10/5/19 Maple Leaf neighborhood

I didn’t have to go very far to peep these leaves. At the end of our block where it intersects Fifth Northeast stands the prettiest Japanese maple in the ‘hood. Toward the end of a busy day, I caught the low sun setting one side of it on fire.

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

#InkTober2019 Check-in: Rough Start


Week 1 of InkTober 2019 is finished, and I admit I had a rough start. Although I still write with fountain pens in my journal regularly, it had been a while since I used one purely for drawing. My favorite Sailor Naginata Fude de Mannen felt familiar as an old friend, yet even old friends who have been apart for a while need time to get reacquainted. By Day 4 it finally started feeling like part of my hand again.

An ongoing annoyance is that the old Moleskine sketchbook I’m using for InkTober is feathering more than I initially thought it would. I’m going to stick with it a few more days, but at some point, I might say, “To heck with it,” and switch to something else.


On Day 3 I had fun experimenting with brush markers – a set of Kingart dual-tip brush markers that I borrowed from a friend who had received them in her InkTober box from ArtSnacks. I didn’t give them a full workout, so I’m not going to review them, but I wasn’t especially impressed. Compared to other similar watercolor brush markers I’ve used, such as Tombow and Marvy LePlume, the Kingart markers didn’t seem to have as much pigment and were not easy to blend or wash. Most annoying was when I pulled a cap off, ink splattered out, ruining a fresh sketchbook page. Nonetheless, it was fun to play with some new materials for InkTober.

(Oct. 5 was shown on my post from that day.)


10/3/19 Kingart brush markers in Stillman & Birn Beta sketchbook




s another early page from the Moleskine sketchbook from 2012. 


Monday, October 7, 2019

Product Review: Stillman & Birn Beta Sketchbook

My first Beta filled on the streets. . . a little road-weary, but not much.
The plain cover is a great showcase for my favorite stickers.

I’ve been using Stillman & Birn Beta sketchbooks for seven years (my first blog reference of it was in 2012), so it seems strange to be reviewing them only now. I’ve filled several with still lives and other sketches made at my desk, and the Beta landscape format has been a supplemental sketchbook whenever I’ve traveled the past few years. I’ve also used a Beta sporadically on location here at home. But after my trip to the Netherlands made me question S&B Zeta for daily field use, I started wondering if I should be using Beta all the time. I just finished filling my first everyday-carry Beta, so it seemed high time to finally write a review.

The spine is wrinkled . . .
When Stillman & Birn sketchbooks first came out, they were only available in hardcover and spiralbound, so those were what I used. As soon as they released softcover editions in 2015, they became a fast favorite. The lower weight and slimmer profile of the softcover is a major benefit for everyday-carry. Even at my desk, I prefer the softcover to the hardbound because the pages open flatter and are therefore easier to use and scan. The softcover is now the only style I use.

After a little more than a month in my bag, the cover is showing small signs of wear along the edges (above), and the spine has shifted a bit and is looking somewhat wrinkled (left), but I have no fear that the pages might come loose; they are firmly bound. (A serious binding issue when the softcover edition was first released was a different story, but after they fixed it, the binding has been completely reliable.) I don’t mind any of these minor signs of wear because filling a 52-page book over four or five weeks is a typical usage rate for me. I also like
. . . but the binding is fully secure.
it when a book looks like it’s done some living. I have inadvertently set it down on coffee and water spills, and the cover wipes off well. If I were planning to carry the same book for several months or longer, however, I might consider putting a slipcover on it to protect it.

The 180-pound Beta paper (along with ivory-colored Delta and smoother Zeta) is the heaviest I’ve used in a sketchbook paper, and I love the fact that I can use both sides of the page without ghosting. The paper warps in areas where I’ve spritzed heavily and remains warped when newly dried. But if I keep the book closed in my bag for a day, the page flattens completely.

Over the years, I’ve used just about every medium that I typically use – colored pencils, water-soluble pencils, markers, brush pens, watercolor, ink – and they all look vibrant and sharp on Beta pages.

5/18/14 watercolor

I’ve heard some watercolor painters complain that the paper’s sizing and fiber content arent ideal for watercolor, and that might be true, but I find it ideal for my purposes. While the tooth isn’t as pebbly as some cold-press papers I’ve tried, it’s enough to grab watercolor pencil pigment aggressively, which is ideal for working quickly on location. The texture does show through with dry media, which some might not like, but I prefer it in nearly all urban and natural scenes. In fact, when I switched from cold-press Canson XL paper (which I used for years in my DIY sketchbooks and which has a Beta-like surface) to smooth S&B Zeta last winter, the feature I missed most was the texture.
2/13/19 Watercolor pencils and Beta are best friends.

What I didn’t fully realize at the time that I switched to Zeta, however, was the difference in sizing among papers intended for wet media. Watercolor painters will talk for hours about different types and degrees of sizing used on various papers, and I don’t know enough about it to go into the technicalities. But what I learned from using Zeta for a few months was that even though the marketing information describes it as being appropriate for wet media, it is not the same sizing as Beta’s. Hues from the same water-soluble colored pencils look slightly less vibrant on Zeta’s surface compared to Beta. In addition, I had trouble when I spritzed Zeta pages for wet-in-wet techniques because water would sink immediately into the surface and even leave a permanent measly pattern where the water drops first landed.

Whatever type or degree of sizing Beta has is just right for spritzing: The water stays on the surface long enough to apply wet pencil color, then disappears without a trace. And the spritzer/Beta team really shines when I spray foliage in my sketches to intensify the hues in an irregular, organic way. The paper’s texture and sizing both enhance the appearance of foliage. (Below is the same sketch I showed the other day; it’s the best recent example I have.)
10/13/19 Spritzing watercolor pencils on Beta's textured surface gives foliage a natural organic appearance.

With such a prominent surface texture, I’d expect to have difficulty with Beta when making finely detailed colored pencil drawings. In the maple leaf below, I used both traditional (Faber-Castell Polychromos) and water-soluble (Caran d’Ache Museum Aquarelle and F-C Albrecht Durer) colored pencils. I had to keep sharpening the pencils, and it would have been easier to get the fine leaf points with a smoother paper. Yet I’m happy with the result here, and I like the subtle texture on the leaf that was easy to achieve on Beta’s surface. If I were using colored pencils to make anything more finely detailed than this leaf, I would probably choose a smoother paper (Zeta would be ideal).
10/30/17 Colored pencil and water-soluble colored pencil

So far, the only medium I don’t like at all with Beta is graphite used in the way I learned from Eduardo Bajzek that requires constant blending with a tortillon to achieve the lovely tonal modulation that appeals to me about this technique. Smooth paper is essential for it.

Fountain and ballpoint pens are both more pleasant to use on a smoother surface, but Beta’s surface is certainly tolerable with either. Markers and brush pens bring out the texture also, and I like the subtle “dry brush” effect.
7/16/16 Brush pen and Kuretake Zig brush markers

Overall, I’ve been very pleased with S&B Beta as my daily-carry, and it makes sense: I used 140-pound Canson XL for years in my handbound books, and Beta’s surface and sizing are similar to Canson’s. (A major advantage over Canson, however, is that Beta’s surface is identical on both sides. Canson XL, a student-grade paper, has the annoying “feature” of being slightly smoother on one side than the other.) It’s only logical that if I’ve been using Beta happily at my desk all this time, I’d be happy using it on location, too. And I am.

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